John Isner was sweating bullets, but he never lost his cool.
On an extremely hot and humid afternoon that left him drained, the Greensboro native and No. 4 seed worked out of an early hole and endured for a 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Marcos Baghdatis in the Winston-Salem Open quarterfinals.
The victory moved Isner, the fourth seed, into Friday’s semifinals against Andy Roddick, who easily dispatched Juan Monaco in the afternoon sessions’ second quarterfinal.
"I kept calm after the first set," Isner said. "I knew that with my serve, I just had a feeling it wasn’t going to be another 6-1, 6-2 set in his favor. I just had a feeling I was going to play better and he wasn’t going to have such an easy time, and that was the case."
The 6-9, 245-pounder admitted that the three-setter – which seemed headed for a third-set tie-break until Isner broke serve in the ninth game and then served out the match – took a toll on him. He had breezed through his first two matches with identical 7-6, 6-2 wins over Dudi Sela and Jarkko Nieminen.
"It was like somebody turned up the heat today," Isner said. "The humidity, that’s what really bothers me and it was very, very humid today. I’m such a big guy, I’m expending more energy than my opponents because of how big I am and how much I weigh. I’m sweating bullets out there. It takes a lot out of me. But it’s good prep, because New York won’t be like this, I’m sure."
Isner got broken at love in his first service game, and that set the tone for the first set. Baghdatis broke later to go up 5-1, and served out the set.
"That first set, although I felt he played well and was on my serve, I just came out so flat," Isner said.
Baghdatis, the eighth seed, said that even though he won the first set, he never felt he got into a rhythm because of so many quick points. Then, Isner took control of the second set quickly with a break in the second game, and eventually broke again in the eighth game.
"No rhythm," Baghdatis said. "You don’t get too much rhythm against him. I cannot say it’s not tennis, but you cannot play from the baseline. The only time you get to play one or two times on your serves, and those are the crucial ones, and that’s when you have to find a way to win that point. Throughout the match, when I won the first set maybe I didn’t win one rally the whole set. So you lose a bit of rhythm and then he starts pushing the ball back, and it’s tough to find rhythm."
"I certainly don’t give players rhythm because on my serve I’m keeping the points short and on my return game the majority of time I keep it short," Isner said. "I think Marcos is one of those guys, when he can get in a groove and kind of a banging match from the baseline, that’s when he plays well and gets good results."
Baghdatis was also plagued by poor serving. He served at just 39 percent on first serves, and had two crucial double-faults. Isner had 12 aces and served at 64 percent.
"It’s not easy playing against John knowing that you have so much pressure on your serve," Baghdatis said. "I think today my first serve percentage was not so good. I need to work on that. I’m playing great tennis. I’m returning pretty well, I’m moving around the court. It’s just a matter of getting some more help from my first serve."
Roddick has won three of the four previous matches against Isner, but Isner got a big win – in a fifth-set tiebreaker in the 2009 US Open.
"He’s been holding serve pretty well here," Isner said. "It’s similar to me. He relies a lot on his serve, but from the baseline he is so fit and in such good shape, he won’t blow you away from the baseline but he’ll make a lot of balls. That’s what he does pretty well. The first part, and he’ll say the same thing about me, is just getting the serve back and just trying to work the point from there. If and when I get the serve back, I’ll need to be more aggressive with him. I don’t want to rally with him. He can rally literally all day."